Osama Bin Laden is dead.
After countless years, both before and after 9/11. After two poorly conceived and executed wars still lacking the light of resolution. After the loss of 2,340 coalition soldiers, 8,739+ Afghan forces, and tens of thousands of civilians deaths, the world’s most wanted man has been killed by a U.S. operative in a mansion outside of Islamabad in Pakistan. Should we feel any safer? Does this mean the terror that has gripped the nation for the last ten years will fade?
The United States created the animal that was Osama Bin Laden. His hatred of what we stood for was continually reinforced by our stubborn refusal to look at the world on its own terms rather than try to impose an ideal that we ourselves only barely understand. Throughout the years of his reign of terror, this modest man, living a shepherd’s existence in the mountains of Afghan/Pakistan borders defied the will of the world’s largest super-power and demonstrated to his followers that any nation, no matter how rich or powerful, could be humbled by the actions of a few faithfully deluded followers. He ushered in a new era of military combat, where the most powerful weapons were volunteers; men and women willing to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs, to die willingly for an ideal all the democracy and capitalism in the world couldn’t erase. His principle weapon was fear, his strategic goal the corruption of what he perceived was an imperialist tendency to impose its world view upon others.
And guess what? It worked.
In the years since 9/11, the U.S. has learned that the cost of fear is the loss of liberty. Whether intentional or not, the single greatest wound Bin Laden inflicted was the near total destruction of our national faith in our own Constitution. Before Bin Laden, movement was relatively unrestricted; privacy was, for the most part, respected; and religious and social tolerance was a touchstone of national merit. We were a democracy that tok pride in our ability to preserve opposing viewpoints under a banner of national discourse. We were a melting pot of ideas meant to stand as a example to the world of how to bring peace and prosperity to all, regardless of race or religion.
Post-9/11, all of that changed. Travelers now face a gauntlet of security measures that more closely resemble a statutory arrest than a boarding pass. Communications of all kinds are monitored more closely than the mating habits of pandas. Phones are routinely tapped, e-mails scanned, text messages intercepted, browsing habits logged, shopping sprees recorded for future reference. Because of fear, we traded away our individual freedoms for the blanket label of “potential terrorist” – objects to the machine.
Worse yet, our national psyche fractured into one of such pure paranoia that the melting pot of peaceful co-existence saw its flame extinguished so we could better cower in the dark. Because Bin Laden was a Muslim, all of Islam – a religion of peace – was painted with a broad brush of suspicion and hatred. Our political leaders told twin tales of deceit with one side of their mouths professing respect for the faith of Muhammad, while the other ordered airstrikes and roundups of civilians that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or worshipping the wrong texts in the wrong temple. Our soldiers were sent to foreign soil to fight a menace their superiors couldn’t even define and, in far too many instances, were led into battle under the false pretense that these were wars to be fought for the soul of humanity; crusades where one God would be show to be superior to another.
On the home-front, political divisions were defined by the phrase, “You’re either with us, or against us,” a ridiculously medieval rhetoric that under normal circumstances would have appeared absurd to all but the most closed of minds. But, within our climate of fear, such rhetoric became the hallmark of political success. We needed villains, and our inability to capture Bin Laden – the true cause of our fear – resulted in the turning of others into surrogate subjects for an impotent rage. We traded discourse for hate; stereotyping opponents as lesser Bin Laden’s when they failed to toe the company line. The middle ground became a minefield of polar opposition; lacking both the will and the way to navigate to a position of comfort or safety.
But now the cause of our trauma is dead. Life should return to normal, yes? I wouldn’t get your hopes up.
Osama Bin Laden may be officially dead, but his legacy is still very much alive, and equally lethal. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s second in command, yet lurks, fully capable of kicking us hard, and where it hurts. For every soul rejoicing that the son of a bitch is dead, there are an equal number now righteously engaged in the game of vengeance for vengeance’s sake. The hydra hasn’t died, its only waiting for the second head to move forward to lead another charge.
And as we wait, we continue to erase the very things the beast abhors. In the coming weeks, you can expect the United States to be on an extremely high level of alert. The tensions we experienced in the days following 9/11 are likely to return. Our soldiers stationed around the world will be forced to sleep a little lighter, ears cocked to the fence-lines. Travelers already irritated with nuclear scanning and enhanced pat-downs will face increasingly distressed, lowly paid TSA agents told to look sharper, listen more carefully, and fell a little more closely. People on the street will cut eyes sideways at their companions, wondering if today is the day that one vengeful lunatic succeeds where others have failed. We will all cower a little more, and our leaders will feed our fears with fresh revelations of new horrors lying just around the corner; equally angry, equally fierce, equally deadly. Osama Bin Laden may be dead and gone, but the terror he bestowed upon this once great nation still festers like a cancer on our national consciousness.